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Walter Sickert’s fascination with the mundane, gaudy and sordid

A new exhibition presents the artist as a highly complex man whose unsettling work had innumerable narrative interpretations.

By Michael Prodger

In 1913, Walter Sickert wrote a letter to his protégée Ethel Sands, an American hostess and painter, in which he described artistic alchemy: “On a series of apparently tiresome, flat sittings seeming to lead nowhere – one day something happens, the touches seem to ‘take’, the deaf canvas listens, your words flow and you have done something.” It is a nice image but Sickert – as Tate Britain’s superb new survey shows – was not just prolific and long-lived but an artist of extraordinary range. It was not often, one suspects, that his canvases were deaf.

As the exhibition makes clear, Sickert (1860-1942) lived the fullest of lives. In a series of themed rooms, his many subjects are lucidly laid out – self-portraits, landscapes, music-hall interiors, portraits, scenes of streets and buildings, nudes and sensational murders, the theatre and celebrities. His career spanned impressionism, modernism and the stylistic mishmash of the interwar years. Meanwhile, he was thrice married; lived in both England and France; was a founder, member and official in assorted influential art groups; taught and mentored students and fellow painters; and kept up a vivid social life, nurturing friendships with great men from Degas and Lord Beaverbrook to Winston Churchill.

This multifariousness may also have been a reflection of his early training as an actor – here was a man used to adopting roles. The one part that stayed consistent, however, was that of the painter of modern life. It was the mundane and quotidian as it unfurled in front of him that fascinated Sickert: art, he believed, should deal “joyously with gross material facts”. It may not have been an edifying world he depicted but in its motley it fitted his belief that “All the greater draughtsmen tell a story.” Sickert produced paintings that have no explicit meaning or moral but that provoke innumerable narrative interpretations.

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The paintings of Dieppe shopfronts he made while assistant to James Abbott McNeill Whistler in the mid-1880s may be paintings about tone and mood but they also prompt thoughts about the lives of the shops’ proprietors and customers. His music-hall paintings borrow from Degas and are as interested in the pulsing throng of the audience – gawking, gurning and hooting – and skewed and startling perspectives of the stalls and galleries as in the performers on the stage. Sickert’s scenes of cafés, casinos and Tube stations breathe the same urban ennui and isolation that Edward Hopper would later make his own.

It is, though, his nudes – there is a full room of them in the Tate show – that best show the carefully constructed ambivalence that underlies his pictures. These are images of working-class models – unidealised, fleshy, lumpy, splayed and twisted – that reject the idea of classical elegance and decorum and display the very distinction he drew in an article of 1910 between “the naked and the nude”. His allegiance was to the physicality of Courbet’s and Manet’s women rather than to the smooth formality of the academies.

Between 1907 and 1909, however, he started to add a clothed male figure alongside his women in seedy upper-storey bedrooms – “third floor backs”. It immediately transformed the nature of the scene and overlaid it with psychological unease. What sort of  exchange was taking place between the men and the naked women lying indecorously on iron bedsteads – are they lovers, spouses, client and prostitute, or killer and victim? This last possibility was something that Sickert played with to goading effect. In the wake of the murder in 1907 of a prostitute called Emily Dimmock in Camden Town he gave some of his pictures double titles. As Summer Afternoon and What Shall We Do for the Rent?, for example, the paintings depict respectively either sun-warmed sexual intimacy or despair as a wife has to turn to selling her body for cash, but under Sickert’s alternative title, The Camden Town Murder (one he gave to multiple pictures), they instantly become images of sordid and violent death – despite the total lack of blood (Dimmock’s throat in fact was cut from ear to ear).

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This ambiguity guaranteed Sickert column inches and attached a frisson of danger to his name. “It is said that we are a great literary nation,” he later wrote, “but we really don’t care about literature, we like films and we like a good murder. If there is not a murder about every day they put one in… Not that I am against that because I once painted a whole series about the Camden Town murder, and after all murder is as good a subject as any other.”

This was disingenuous: Sickert was unhealthily fascinated by Penny Dreadful slayings and the Jack the Ripper killings in particular – he even told friends that he had once lodged in the murderer’s old room and painted a picture showing it. Speculation that he was himself the Ripper has been around for years: no he wasn’t, say the curators, though they do reveal, alarmingly, that paper analysis has proved that he was the author of a series of illustrated letters to the police claiming to be from the killer. Numerous other letter writers also declared responsibility but whether Sickert’s were a sick joke, a sinister tease or an admission of the truth can’t be known; the very best that can be said of this unsettling side to him is that he possessed a deeply unpleasant streak of morbid fantasy.

If Sickert’s muddying of the waters was intentional, then he did himself a disservice and his innovative role in 20th-century British art has suffered as a result. His nudes were a clear influence on Lucian Freud, the only painting Francis Bacon hung in his studio was a small Sickert conversation piece, and Frank Auerbach adapted his heavy-brush style both in thick-air interiors and outdoor London scenes. In the 1930s Sickert’s use of photographs prefigured pop art and Gerhard Richter.

He was fascinated by the way newspaper photographs flattened perspective and reduced colour to tonal contrasts. So he squared up front-page snaps of, say, Edward VIII, crowds waiting in the rain to see the aviatrice Amelia Earhart, or the Tiller Girls dancing leggily, and, using brighter colours than was typical with him – although with the same biscuity surface texture – produced large-scale pictures that are somewhere between posters and grand, stately home Van Dyckian portraiture. In these, as throughout his career, he remained committed to examining popular culture through the techniques of high art: “The practice of art,” he believed, “no more than lawn-tennis or chess, is not a natural thing. It is a highly artificial game.”

This scrupulous exhibition, with some 150 paintings, presents Sickert as a painter who stood at the heart of a swathe of British art. He also comes across as a highly complex man. At the very beginning of the show there is a pair of self-portraits from 1929, both adapted from photographs taken by his third wife, the artist Thérèse Lessore: in one he is a weakling, spooning food into his mouth as he recovers from illness; in the other his oversized head looms above the viewer like an Old Testament prophet. It may have been that youthful actor in him surfacing once more, but in these pictures, as in many of those on display here, it is not clear quite what he was playing at. But then Sickert believed that art is an independent means of communication: “If the subject of a picture could be stated in words,” he said, “there had been no need to paint it.”

Walter Sickert
Tate Britain, London SW1
Until 18 September

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future